Toronto, Canada – At the arrivals lounge at Toronto Pearson Airport on a winter afternoon, a small crowd gathers, holding a banner that reads “Welcome to Canada”. It is decorated with beavers playing hockey, snowmen, and other Canadian memorabilia.
A woman passes out carnations – a gift for each person involved in the private sponsorship group. In her other arm, she clutches a larger bouquet, ready to welcome her soon-to-arrive Syrian refugee family.
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Such gatherings are happening in airports across Canada. This is the “welcoming committee” of the Toronto chapter of Save a Family from Syria, a multifaith group working to bring Syrian refugee families to Toronto and Kingston. For the past year, First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto and the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) have partnered to privately sponsor five Syrian families to resettle in Toronto.
But they are not the only ones: across the country, in a voluntary undertaking, Canadian citizens are sponsoring Syrian refugees and helping them resettle under the country’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees programme.
“Canada is the only country that has a private sponsorship programme allowing citizens and permanent residents to sponsor refugees,” says Melissa Scott from the Refugee Sponsorship Training Centre in Toronto.
Applying as “Groups of Five”, five or more private sponsors agree to provide financial support for all the refugees’ basic expenses (including housing, food and transportation), usually for up to one year or until the refugees become self-sufficient. As a group, they collect donations, locate housing, and solicit clothing and furniture donations to support the families – even before they arrive.
This private sponsorship model sparks a new journey for refugees and sponsors alike as they form a special bond during the process of resettlement in Canada.
The roots of private sponsorship
In Canada, private sponsorship is not a new phenomenon. The programme actually dates back to 1975, when the largest intake and resettlement of refugees first began in the country.
“[The programme] started … when the Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese movement took place,” says Peter Goodspeed from Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based nonprofit organisation that helps private citizens sponsor refugees. “Canada brought in 60,000 Indo-Chinese refugees – mostly privately sponsored.”
Between 1975 and 1999, almost 130,000 Indo-Chinese refugees came to Canada from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. As Goodspeed explains, the idea of a private sponsorship programme was to augment the government-assisted refugee sponsorship system and to expedite the response to international crises.
“You might have one refugee who came in as a government-assisted refugee,” says Goodspeed. “Later, he would bring relatives. So, it has become a family reunification process through private sponsors.”
This time, however, Goodspeed says the response is profoundly different. Last September, after the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body made headlines globally, “How to sponsor a Syrian?” became the top Google search term in Canada.
From jogging clubs to business associations, Canadians have been stepping forward to sponsor Syrian refugees.
“In the past, it’s always been the church and ethnic groups [who sponsor refugees],” says Goodspeed. “But in this case, you’re getting schools, law offices, people that jog together. They’ve all gotten together and decided they’re going to sponsor a person together.”
Based on Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s guidelines, a sponsor group must have a minimum of $27,000 to sponsor a family of four. To meet this benchmark, each group must tackle the heavy task of fundraising from their respective communities.
“We’ve done quite a few fundraisers,” says Annette Wilde, one of the leaders of Save a Family from Syria. “We had a capital campaign where we sent out letters. People have had house parties. We had a Middle Eastern buffet [benefit dinner], and face-painting for the kids.”
With $170,000 raised in under a year, Save a Family from Syria received the congregation’s approval to sponsor two additional families, bringing the total to five.
There are now more than 25,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada since November 2015 as part of the Canadian government’s $678m resettlement plan. As of February 2016, approximately 8,527 were privately sponsored by Canadian citizens, but applications are ongoing.
“[I saw] the photo of the boy [Alan Kurdi] on the beach,” says Caroline Lock, one of the sponsors.
Lock posted on Facebook, asking if anyone wanted to join a Group of Five to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. The response to the message was immediate, and within 24 hours, a group of 13 had been formed under the name “Downtown Relief Line”.
“A lot of us have children,” says Rae Brager, who answered Lock’s call on Facebook. “That photo was the culmination of feeling completely helpless and frustrated to intervene. [Sponsorship] was something we could do to really change the life of one family, and hopefully more.”
Together, Downtown Relief Line raised more than $50,000 and, in January 2016, welcomed a Syrian family to Toronto. Since then, they’ve been collectively focused on resettling the family within the city.
For Robert Brodey, however, the photograph of Alan Kurdi wasn’t the “catalyst” for getting involved.
“If you had been watching the news, you understood that was happening every day,” says Brodey, a writer in Toronto. “And also, not just Syrians: There are Libyans, Sudanese, and people from all over the world who are drowning in those boats.”
With his wife’s relatives living in Aleppo, Brodey had been following the Syrian conflict since the beginning and says he felt increasingly “frustrated” as he watched the situation escalate.
“It conjured memories of [watching] the Rwandan genocide on the nightly news and feeling totally helpless,” says Brodey. “You see this humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, and I’m sitting in a room yelling at a TV, and I can’t do anything about it.”
Bringing people to safety
Motivated, Brodey posted a message on Facebook, asking if friends wanted to form a Group of Five. Through social media channels, the initiative “snowballed”. By December 2015, the “Marhaba Committee” had grown to roughly 16 members, ranging from scientists to social workers and singers to artists. Now, they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a family of five.
“We have 100 percent finances for the family,” says Brodey. “We have household items – towels, dishes, toys – packed up in boxes ready to go.”
Lisa Forman’s decision to join the Marhaba Committee was partly fuelled by her outrage towards the then Conservative government, which she says was not taking action on the Syrian refugee crisis.
“The government was absolutely not doing its part, and it was incumbent on people to step up,” says Forman, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Human Rights and Global Health Equity at the University of Toronto.
The image of Alan Kurdi sparked national fury after the media reported that his family had allegedly been denied asylum in Canada. Although the government claimed to have no record of their application, the public outcry was so immense that then Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, was ousted in the October 2015 election.
“A lot of us had been feeling frustration with the government,” says Brager. “With [its] intolerance and not supporting our Canadian values of bringing people to safety. [Private sponsorship] was something concrete that we could do to intervene.”
Many Canadians were initially unaware of the private sponsorship programme but were inspired to get involved after learning about “Groups of Five” through media reports.
“When I realised that ordinary people [could] become involved in private sponsorship of Syrian refugees, that interested me immediately,” says Jim Lane, who sits on the board of directors of Doctors without Borders Canada. “I sent out an email to family and friends to gauge support, and got a tremendous response. I was really amazed … I got commitments of about $20,000 in two or three weeks, and offers of assistance.”
Seeking to collaborate with a Sponsorship Agreement Holder organisation, Lane was introduced to Wilde from Save a Family from Syria. At the time, the Toronto chapter was working to sponsor three refugee families to Canada, but with the pooling of additional resources, they were able to boost that number to five.
‘When I realised that ordinary people [could] become involved in private sponsorship of Syrian refugees, that interested me immediately,’ says Jim Lane from Save a Family from Syria [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera]
Other Canadians, like James Nguyen, have intensely personal reasons for getting involved. In the autumn of 1980, Nguyen was five when he boarded a tiny, crowded boat to cross the sea from Vietnam to Malaysia.
“I stayed at a refugee camp for about six months and then came [to Canada] in early 1981,” says Nguyen, who is the former president of the Vietnamese Association of Toronto. “I was sponsored by the government.”
Now, Nguyen wants to “pay it forward”. He is one of the three cofounders of Vietnamese Canadians for Lifeline Syria, which is affiliated with Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment Canada (VOICE Canada).
In the past, the organisation has sponsored refugee families from Thailand. The organisation launched a “Vietnamese for Lifeline Syria” campaign in October 2015, and has raised $120,000 to sponsor three Syrian families.
“I always tell people, this is the least we can do,” says Nguyen. “Because 35 years ago, when 60,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Canada, we were helped by Canadian families and different ethnic groups. For us, it’s going that full circle and helping someone else who’s in need.
“For us, this is giving back to the country that gave us so much.”
‘I’d probably be dead’
Moe was born and raised in Syria, but says a small group of Canadian strangers saved his life.
He had carved out a comfortable life, surrounded by friends and family, in his home country, and was thriving professionally. At the age of 24, he bought his first apartment in an upscale neighbourhood of Damascus.
But for Moe, everything changed in late 2013. It became increasingly impossible for him to ignore the country’s unrest.
“I was arrested because my eyes are green,” he says. “Apparently, they were looking for a terrorist whose eyes were green. So they went around town arresting absolutely everyone whose eyes were green.
“In Syria, you don’t need a reason to be arrested or murdered.”
Traumatised by the arrest and facing conscription into the army, Moe decided it was time to go. He liquidated all his assets – donating half the proceeds to housing for Internally Displaced People – and temporarily fled to Lebanon. He started making arrangements to settle in Turkey. But one big problem hindered Moe’s plans: “I got to the [Turkish] embassy [in Lebanon] and they said, ‘We can’t let you in – you’re Palestinian’,” he remembers. “I didn’t know I was stateless.”
Although his family’s roots run deep in Syria, Moe’s paternal grandfather was born in Palestine, and had travelled to Syria as a refugee. At the Turkish embassy, Moe discovered that he actually held a Syrian travel document rather than a passport – and therefore did not hold Syrian citizenship.
“So I couldn’t register with the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] and guarantee that I wouldn’t be deported,” says Moe. “Also, I couldn’t enter Lebanon unless it was on a transit visa and I overstayed it. That’s how I entered.
“Palestinians fleeing conflict are increasingly falling through the cracks in the Middle East region and beyond in Europe,” says Chris Gunness, a UNRWA spokesperson. “Many are travelling on documents, such as travel documents, that are not recognised. So a people already facing multiple displacements and horrific vulnerabilities are having flight options closed off to them.”
Desperate, Moe began scouring his options, asking friends for assistance and looking to emigrate to countries as far away as Ecuador. In February 2014, he was stopped from boarding a plane bound for Malaysia.
But on the same day, a promising contact emerged from a social networking application geared towards gay and bisexual men.
“A guy that I had met [through the application] introduced me to his friend,” says Moe. “He then talked with his husband who lives here [in Canada].”
Within days, the wheels were in motion to help Moe get to Canada. A small congregation, Bathurst United Church, quickly raised funds to privately sponsor Moe, receiving additional financial assistance from Rainbow Refugee – a programme funded by the Canadian government to sponsor LGBT asylum seekers.
Arriving at Toronto Pearson Airport in May 2015, Moe finally met his Canadian sponsors.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever been done for me,” he says. “If it weren’t for them, I’d probably be dead.”
‘This is not heaven’: The road to resettlement
Although getting to Canada is half the battle, resettlement is not without its challenges for both refugees and sponsors. For the newly arrived, adjusting to life in Canada – learning a new language, finding a job, getting healthcare – can feel overwhelming.
“It’s the psychological trauma of getting dropped into a strange country,” says Wilde. “Even though they have some family, it’s still not their culture. So there’s a lot of adjustment for them.”
“Refugees need to know this is not heaven,” says Moe. “It’s a place where you have to work hard, and there are times of despair.”
Fortunately, the private sponsorship programme model is designed to work as a built-in support system for refugees. Aside from providing one year of financial support, sponsors are also responsible for setting up and orienting newcomers to everyday life.
“Where are they going to live? Where are they going to go to school? What basic furniture are they going to need?” says Wilde. “Once they arrive, there’s the big moment when you’re all at the airport, and everyone’s happy. And then, immediately after that, it’s two weeks of activity. Getting their SIN [social insurance] numbers, opening bank accounts, getting registered in school.
“We’re so busy looking at the basics of life.”
“They dispense [fundraised] money [to me],” says Moe. “They buy me food, winter clothes. They facilitated me going to a registrar at [the University of Toronto], which was very difficult because I don’t have [transcripts]. I’m 25, and somebody is taking care of me. It feels great, especially after living in Lebanon and sometimes not having a place to live or something to eat.”
Sponsors work out much of the “pre-settlement” logistics in advance, but encounter a flurry of tasks and unexpected challenges once a family arrives. Finding appropriate housing is one of the biggest hurdles.
“Sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of figuring out [housing] before they come,” says Wilde. “We’re given notice of arrival [a few] weeks before. You have to figure out temporary housing.”
Moreover, with refugees in limbo overseas, sponsors often have to make a speedy choice: arrange temporary housing until a long-term rental can be secured, or risk signing a lease and paying for an apartment that may sit vacant for an indefinite time. The latter can consume a significant portion of a sponsor group’s budget.
Despite having lived in Toronto for almost a year and being employed, Moe is still searching for an apartment.
“Finding a place in Toronto is a nightmare,” he says. “They ask you for credit history … I did not know what that was.”
Luckily, a member of the church’s refugee committee offered Moe a room to rent in her house. His sponsors also helped him to tackle other aspects of resettlement, such as getting signed up for services, exploring university programmes, and finding a job.
“They helped me find a family doctor, a dentist,” says Moe. “They helped me get an OHIP [Ontario health insurance plan] card. They bought me a metro pass. They covered absolutely everything.”
In Canada, refugees and asylum seekers receive free medical treatment, but many still need assistance navigating the healthcare system.
“[We made sure that] the medical issues are getting taken care of,” says Wilde. “One of the gentlemen was tortured quite badly, and his eye was damaged. So we’re getting the doctors [to help] with their medical conditions.”
“There’s a lot of bureaucracy in this country, and you have to be ready to work around it,” says Moe. “For example, when I tried to get my OHIP card, the person said, ‘He’s a landed immigrant, he has to wait three months.’ But it’s different [for refugees]. The person [from the sponsor group] just insisted, and I got it.”
For many, the relationship between refugees and their sponsors becomes almost familial over time. Newcomers who do not speak the language or have no family connections in Canada may feel isolated from mainstream society. It’s the duty of sponsors to care for the psychosocial wellness of refugees.
“You’re just making sure someone is having tea with them in the afternoon, or someone is walking with them to drop the kids off at school,” says Wilde.
Bureaucratic barriers remain
Although Canada’s sponsorship programme is seen as a model for other nations, it isn’t faultless.
The government recently came under fire for delays in processing sponsorship applications. After the Liberal government’s target to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by February 2016 was reached, the temporary processing centres established in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon were reportedly dismantled. Private sponsors were then informed that arrival timelines for refugees could be much longer than they expected, possibly into 2017 or longer.
“If you simply lump all sponsorship applications into the same pot, with the same staff, everything will slow down,” says Goodspeed. “We’ll be back to two or three-year wait times in no time. That could easily kill the private sponsorship programme in the eyes of the public.”
“Perhaps we should have seen it coming, given that the [federal government] a few months back made a surprise announcement that [privately sponsored] Syrians would have to pay for their own travel again,” says Brodey. “It’s the lack of consultation and speed with which they shut things down that is so frustrating.”
In response, community groups such as Lifeline Syria lobbied the government to exclude Syrian refugees from the caps and prioritise privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications. As a result of their efforts, on April 7, Immigration Minister John McCallum committed to returning officials to Lebanon, and possibly Turkey and Jordan, to fast-track the admission of another 10,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees.
Although the situation appears promising, Brodey says the government’s flip-flopping has left his group in limbo. While a Syrian refugee family has been assigned, their paperwork is reportedly sitting at an overseas consulate.
“We are doing the job of the government – happily and voluntarily, of course – raising money and organising the family’s settlement,” says Brodey. “We are now many months into the process, and it will be many more months before the family arrives.”
Moving forward, but still a refugee
Moe has settled into the groove of everyday life – going to work at Lifeline Syria, exploring academic programmes for the future and learning to ice-skate. He jokes that “Zamboni” (a machine to smoothen ice rinks) was his first “Canadian” word.
Although he’s “still a refugee”, Moe says “life goes on”, and with the support of his sponsors, he’s starting to “feel human again.
“In Lebanon, I was feeling worthless,” he says. “You’re sick or have no food – nobody cares. Seeing how much thought and feeling [sponsors] put into [sponsorship], it reinstates your sense of worth. Here, I just felt like, I matter ….”
He is planning a cross-country trip to see more of his new home.
“The private sponsorship programme is one of the things that I respect Canada for,” says Moe. “From what I’m hearing from sponsors, they say without a doubt [that sponsoring refugees] is the best thing they’ve ever done. I’m very thankful because they let [my life] continue.”